luxuriant leprosy of the vegetable kingdom

Soon began the glorious days of autumn particularly unmistakable in the melancholy curve that the sun, already noticeable lower over the horizon, drew across the sky in whose calm expanses, as though constantly swept by a wonderfully pure wind, its golden trace seemed to linger like a magnificent ship’s wake, and hardly had it turned its course toward the horizon than the moon, as though suspended to the beam of a celestial balance, appeared against the blue light of day with the ghostly glow of an unexpected star, whose malignant influence would now, of itself alone, explain the sudden, strange, and half-metallic alterations of the leaves of the forest whose surprising red and yellow brilliance burst out everywhere with the irrepressible vigour, the fulminating contagion of a luxuriant leprosy of the vegetable kingdom.

Julien Gracq, The Castle of Argol (a most curious book, and one filled with what would become Gracq’s signature lush descriptions of Nature as a possibly supernatural force. In particular he seems to have a thing for forests…reading his forested prose turns hypnotic after a time. See also: A Balcony in the Forest.)

[Review here.]

virginia woolf’s summer madness

The only thing in this world is music–music and books and one or two pictures. I am going to found a colony where there shall be no marrying–unless you happen to fall in love with a symphony of Beethoven–no human element at all, except what comes through Art–nothing but ideal peace and endless meditation. The whole of human beings grows too complicated, my only wonder is that we don’t fill more madhouses: the insane view of life has much to be said for it–perhaps its the sane one after all: and we, the sad sober respectable citizens really rave every moment of our lives and deserve to be shut up perpetually. My spring melancholy is developing these hot days into summer madness.

Source: The Letters of Virginia Woolf Volume 1: 1888-1912 (from a letter dated April 23, 1901 to Emma Vaughan)

(thanks: lost fun zone)

‘the source we have forgotten’

The road. When I could drive no more for weariness I huddled in the back of the car and uneasily dreamed for a few hours but I did not do that often, I was in a frenzy that precluded rest. I felt that I was in a great hurry but I did not know I was speeding toward the very enigma I had left behind–the dark room, the mirror, the woman. I did not know this destination exercised a magnetic attraction on me. I did not know I could not stop.

In the mornings, the ground was white with hoar frost for it was now late October and a crimson sun rose over plains that rolled as far as the pale hem of the sky. There were no trees. The radio in the car fed me an aural pabulum of cheapjack heartbreak; this nasal country music was interspersed with voices that sang the praises of innumerable articles of consumption and sputtered out frequent news bulletins. The Harlem Wall grew longer, taller, thicker; the National Guard was on permanent call. Riots, incendiarism. I could not have picked a worse time for my trip. Only fatality could have possessed me to go high-tailing off in such troubled times, fatality and the unknowable impulsion of the destination ahead of me, a destination of which I was entirely ignorant although it had chosen me long ago for our destinations choose us, choose us before we are born.

And exercise a magnetic attraction upon us, drawing us inexorably toward the source we have forgotten. Descend lower, descend the diminishing spirals of being that restore us to our source. Descend lower; while the world, in time, goes forward and so presents us with the illusion of motion, though all our lives we move through curvilinear galleries of the brain towards the core of the labyrinth within us.

—Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve

2016: my reading crisis year

This year I suffered a crisis of faith in reading fiction. It began early this summer and lasted for several months. At its deepest point I thought I might not ever read another novel. Its origins lay in a complex amalgamation of factors, including a long run of uninspiring reads, the completion of the final stages of a three-year writing project, and a profound deepening of my Zen Buddhist practice. The details of how these factors intersected are of a personal nature that I won’t explore here. Ultimately, however, I weathered this crisis and am pleased to report that I returned to fiction this autumn, albeit with a radically altered view of how I approach my reading and what I hope to extract from it. Perhaps I will write more about these changes in the future, but for now here are the highlights from my reading year, most of them from before the crisis hit. Most links are to my Goodreads reviews, but in cases where I didn’t write a review I’ve provided a publisher link when available.

I enjoyed spending more time with the British avant-gardists of the 1960s, including B.S. Johnson (Travelling People), Ann Quin (completing my reading of her slim output with Berg & Three), Alan Burns (Europe After the Rain & Dreamerika!), Rayner Heppenstall (The Greater Infortune / The Connecting Door), and those others included in the excellent anthology Beyond the Words.

The lost American Modernist Margery Latimer captured my attention, although after reading most of her published output, I found that We Are Incredible was the only work of hers to linger long with me.

Robert Coover’s The Origin of the Brunists was an expected winner in the spring. I look forward to moving on to the sequel The Brunist Day of Wrath, of which I’ve already read a tantalizing excerpt in Conjunctions (#60) a couple of years back.

At the end of the summer I confronted my crisis head-on and approached fiction again through the lens of some old favorites, namely Thomas Bernhard and Marguerite Duras. It was a bittersweet experience with Bernhard, as I was closing out his novels with his final opus, Extinction, and I had a mixed reaction, as I discuss in my review. With Duras, I discovered a new favorite of hers in Summer Rain, which regrettably appears to be out of print, though easy enough to find on the used market (or through interlibrary loan).

But it was Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren that truly immersed me in the wonders of fiction again. This one had been on my to-read list for several years, but its length led me to keep putting it off. I knew, though, that the frenetic pace of my reading had contributed to my crisis and I suspected that a long book might force me to slow down and allow proper digestion to take place. My hunch was correct, for Delany’s storytelling, while compelling and highly readable, demanded the downshift in pace that I so desperately needed to make. Review here.

Other favorites from the year:

Kassandra and the Wolf by Margarita Karapanou – defies description.

Tales of Galicia by Andrzej Stasiuk

The Weight of Things by Marianne Fritz – one of those books whose word count belies its depth. Plot materializes like a squid undulating in its own inky emissions.

The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf – “The paths we really took are overlaid with paths we did not take. I can now hear words that we never spoke. Now I can see her as she was, Christa T., when no witnesses were present. Could it be possible? –The years that re-ascend are no longer the years they were. Light and shadow fall once more over our field of vision: but the field is ready. Should that not amaze us?” (p. 23)

My reading goal for 2017 is to maintain a more leisurely pace—no more gobbling down prose like a pig at the trough. I want to allow literature to seep into my consciousness and take root instead of finishing with restless haste before moving immediately onto the next book. I see more long books in my future, where there is space to lie down and rest awhile, where the last page doesn’t come too soon, leading me to veer off in yet another direction before first taking stock and reorienting myself.

150 years of alice’s adventures

Illustration remix by Anna Vignet.

Illustration remix by Anna Vignet from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, an online annotated edition featuring twelve Lewis Carroll scholars taking one chapter each, plus new artwork and remixes from classic 1865 and 1905 illustrations. A joint project from The Public Domain Review and Medium, on the occasion of the story’s 150th anniversary.

‘he walked arm in arm with his shadow’ (éric chevillard)

[note: cursory statistical analysis reveals this blog would receive heightened traffic if it contained more practical advice on ‘all weather bike commuting,’ but instead it chiefly contains impractical, infrequent, and largely unread text such as the following…]

aural darkness in june. a way to refuse the heat. alice. another merciful release. a spiral of silence. another five minutes in this chair. jabès with his name in his pain but his pain with no name. writing about the book and its hold over us. the power of the word. meanwhile duras is looking at the time. ‘it was ten o’clock. in the evening. it was summer.’ and what could maria call the time opening ahead of her…’this incandescence, this bursting of a love at last without object.’

been here too long. here early / leave late / write in boxes / move on wheels back uphill. two legs, four legs, crossing thresholds over and over. sidewalks of daily desolation. tedium in quin’s ‘city where every street declares its defeat.’ consider bernhard and his ‘born barricade fanatics’the shared ‘desire to barricade ourselves from the world.’

but then there is jabès in unwilling exile from his beloved desert. everyone in some form of exilemental, physical, spiritual—feeling incapable of return. like robin about whom the baron thinks ‘there was in her every movement a slight drag, as if the past were a web about her, as there is a web of time about a very old building.’ and yet nora saying ‘robin can go anywhere, do anything, because she forgets, and i nowhere because i remember.’ because what bliss it would be to forget, right, to not always be dragging that chain of keyless padlocks behind. two (mis?)interpretations of another’s experience. dangers of outside looking in. but what of robin. what of robin. on the floor barking like a dog. a shattered mirror. surrendered to expectations. a final transition to conditioned response. or the ultimate shedding of humanity’s heavy carapace.

coleman dowell, from island people

You drive, walk, eat, look at television, read, and all the while, beyond you and the cozy circle created by your lady around herself and you, like the natural emanations of stars, other lives circle yours, seeds still winged and wind-borne, looking for sympathetic soil. You feel the juices and solids of your body in attempted rearrangement, or, more disturbing, making an effort to create a stillness that approximates death, beyond which the body does become soil, receptive to all wind-borne seeds. In a not especially prolonged stillness, as though no chances could be taken that you might decide to become perpetual motion, words fall out of the air, a random fall from which you might be tempted to make selection, and as you do not move, cannot, a string of words falls onto you, and from you, onto the paper: winter rye greening up, smoothing the old brown earth with a fine new plane: Carpenter Rye, neighbor.

–Coleman Dowell, Island People

belated lists for 2014

Happy New Year! Here are my belated lists of favorite books read and music listened to in 2014. Neither list is in any particular order. My reading slowed down in autumn when I took on Reiner Stach’s Kafka biographies. They ended up being my top favorites for the year, reminding me once again of my love for a good literary biography. As for music, it wasn’t a big year for new discoveries, but plenty of indulging in old favorites and a few newer passions from recent years. I tend to listen to music seasonally, so not all of these are in rotation year-round. I also plan to post a list of favorite films for the year, but that will take some extra time to compile as I don’t always make notes of what I watch.

Books

Completed reads: 72
Abandoned reads: 4

1. Kafka: The Decisive Years by Reiner Stach
2. Kafka: The Years of Insight by Reiner Stach
3. The Notebook, The Proof, The Third Lie: Three Novels by Agota Kristof
4. To Whom It May Concern by Raymond Federman
5. The Will to Sickness by Gerhard Roth
6. Kaddish for an Unborn Child by Imre Kertész
7. Yes by Thomas Bernhard
8. It Then by Danielle Collobert
9. Selected Poems of René Char by René Char
10. Life, End of by Christine Brooke-Rose
11. I Am Lazarus: Stories by Anna Kavan
12. Topology of a Phantom City by Alain Robbe-Grillet
13. Mauve Desert by Nicole Brossard
14. Song of the West: Selected Poems by Georg Trakl
15. A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories by Robert Walser

Music

1. The Smiths
2. The Cure
3. Swans
4. Grails
5. Nadja
6. Jesu
7. Om
8. Lycia
9. Caudal
10. Boards of Canada
11. Gravenhurst (thanks, Dan; RIP Nick Talbot)
12. Nick Drake (mostly Pink Moon)
13. Skinny Puppy (mostly Remission, Bites, Rabies, & The Singles Collect)
14. Front Line Assembly (mostly The Initial Command & State of Mind)
15. Slowdive, with Low [live show with JFaunt ♥]
16. Helicon’s 29th Annual Winter Solstice Concert [live show]
17. Danny Paisley & The Southern Grass, with Chester River Runoff [live show]

the tanners [book review]

Recently I began reading Robert Walser’s novel The Assistant. I associate Walser with the winter season, and particularly the month of December, likely because that was when I first started reading his work. Walser also died in December; he was found lying in the snow on Christmas Day 1956, having suffered a heart attack during one of his frequent and much-loved walks.

The Assistant has been a joy to read so far, brimming with Walser’s off-kilter cheekiness and his typically exuberant scenic descriptions. And so, with my enthusiasm for his writing in its current heightened state, I thought I’d share another of my Walser reviews from the archive, with the hope of encouraging others to investigate this still tragically under-read writer.

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The Tanners by Robert Walser

I don’t want to go running down some career path—supposedly such a grand enterprise. What’s so grand about it: people acquiring crooked backs at an early age from stooping at undersized desks, wrinkled hands, pale faces, mutilated workday trousers, trembling legs, fat bellies, sour stomachs, bald spots upon their skulls, bitter, snappish, leathery, faded, insipid eyes, ravaged brows and the consciousness of having been conscientious fools. No thank you!

Robert Walser was an odd fish and I like him a lot. Even though he once said, as W. G. Sebald reports in the introduction to this book, that he was essentially always writing the same novel, one which he said could be described as “a much-chopped up or dismembered Book of Myself,” I will continue reading his same-as-before novels because they captivate me. I like to think of him up in his stuffy attic room, frantically writing on borrowed paper with stolen pens, gripped in the passion of that writing, of hurling his herky-jerky version of the world down onto the page.

The Tanners is the disjointed story of the Tanner siblings: Simon, Klaus, Kaspar, and Hedwig (oh, and the mysterious Emil, who later randomly shows up in another character’s anecdote). Primarily, the “plot” (such as it is) follows the adventures of Simon as he bounces around from job to job while basically pursuing the sublime. From the start, Simon reminded me of Jakob from Walser’s anti-Bildungsroman Jakob von Gunten, with his similar tendency toward mockery traced with veins of sincerity. Or maybe it was just straight mockery, maybe I imagined the traces of sincerity—it’s really so hard for me to say for sure. When Simon refers to his own cheekiness, I couldn’t stop thinking about that Saturday Night Live sketch where Mike Myers plays Simon, the kid in the bath making drawings who calls people “cheeky monkeys.” It’s always unsettling for me when pop culture and literature suddenly collide in my head. And yet the two Simons do share a similarity, if only a superficial one. But I digress. Simon is a self-described ne’er-do-well prone to walking all night through the mountains to visit his artist brother Kaspar, his closest sibling. Simon’s gleeful flippancy is infectious and makes him a likely candidate for the reader’s sympathy. Hedwig is the only sister in the bunch, a small town schoolteacher who Simon also stays with for an extended visit. They bond, but she suspects him of being a freeloader, which he sort of is. Hedwig is an interesting character, and Walser allots her some good speeches. Finally, Klaus is the oldest brother, a stodgy straight-arrow type who thinks he knows what’s best for all of his siblings. He is annoyingly overbearing, though probably well-meaning.

In the introduction, Sebald draws some parallels between Gogol and Walser that I found to be relevant, having just finished a book of Gogol’s short fiction. Like Gogol, Walser has a tendency to introduce characters who at the time seem like they may come to play important roles in his narrative, only to either suddenly kill them off or fade them into the background. Sometimes they also reappear later, just out of the blue, and fill us in on what they’ve been up to for the past year or however long they’ve been gone from the narrative. The aimless plot wanders down side streets, dead-ends, turns around, leaves the city, climbs a mountain, walks off a cliff, gets a concussion, and turns up back in the city again a few chapters later with a new lease on life. Or something like that. I was anthropomorphizing the plot just then. I would imagine that the general unreliability of Walser’s prose could easily become maddening for some readers. The key is to float along with Walser wherever he chooses to take you. One must surrender completely in order to enjoy reading; there is no fighting it because Walser will always win. Always. We are on an adventure with him, as he discovers his own truths in his writing. In this way he is also very much like Gogol, who eschewed the narrative traditions of the time and instead went off happily exploring in his prose.

Throughout the book, Walser spins a gauzy web of natural beauty around his characters who, when not walking around outside enjoying the weather or laying stretched out in the forest, very much tend to spout off lengthy monologues in the general direction of each other, not seeming to expect responses and, in fact, rarely getting them. Walser’s prose is so sensual, his descriptions of both urban and rural settings sparkle with crisp detail clearly borne of a sharply observant mind. Half the novel one falls into a reverie, while the other half one stares at the closest wall, noting the intricate cracks in the plaster with genuine interest.

Despite the lack of plot, there are certain themes to pick out. With Simon and Hedwig, we find themes of youthful self-discovery, the search for meaning and happiness in one’s life, and the ever-painful plight of the daydreamers among us. With Kaspar, there are the ideals of art and the difficulties inherent in one’s pursuit of those ideals. In Klaus, we see a rather sharp critique of mainstream society and the trappings of materialism and the pursuit of wealth. Readers who have siblings, particularly multiple siblings, will also likely enjoy the novel on another level less accessible to those who don’t, for Walser does an admirable job of portraying the complicated and contradictory dynamics that often characterize sibling relationships.

As Simon opines late in the book, “How tedious it was always to be doing exactly the same thing.” Some books always do the exactly the same thing, what we expect them to do, over and over. Not with Walser. Even if he did claim to be writing the same novel over and over, his prose is always worth reading, because it’s granular yet dissimilar; it’s made up of life’s strikingly mundane and spectacular moments, as pointed out by the likes of Simon, who, after all, claims to be “an outlandish figure in my own homeland.”

john hawkes: encounters with the abyss

I am imbued with the notion that a Muse is necessarily a dead woman, inaccessible or absent; that the poetic structure—like the canon, which is only a hole surrounded by steel—can be based only on what one does not have; and that ultimately one can write only to fill a void or at the least to situate, in relation to the most lucid part of ourselves, the place where this incommensurable abyss yawns within us.

            —Michel Leiris, L’Age d’Homme (published in English as Manhood)

The quote above is one of two epigraphs introducing John Hawkes’ short novel Travesty. It struck me as akin to my own feelings about writing. And in Hawkes’ case it is particularly apropos; for he “situates” the abyss like no other, and in reading him one gets the impression that he knows this is all he can do. An early American postmodernist, Hawkes wrote in an incomparable style, fashioning rich, mythic worlds peopled by characters that are so fully formed they seem real. His work often carries an air of menace, a peering over the edge of the abyss, and sometimes a dangling over it, held tenuously by the ankles. He leaves a lot unwritten, and part of the pleasure in reading him is the struggle to fill in these gaps.

I wasn’t familiar with Leiris, so I looked him up. I found this review of Manhood, which stoked my interest. Leiris was a French Surrealist writer and ethnographer who, in the reviewer’s words, “experimented with the consolidation of mythology, ritual and autobiography-writing.” In reading the review, I could see parallels between Hawkes and Leiris; it seems as if the latter could have been an influence on the former.

So one can write to fill a void, and in that respect, any subject is fair game. The trouble is that the abyss seems too overwhelming at times, too deep to fill and too hazardous to permit even the most cautious approach. Hurling a few sentences over the edge and listening for them to hit bottom feels like a lonely and futile exercise. In response, the temptation arises to shy away from it and instead dwell in more “lucid” inner locales.

Habit, the great deadener, must also be considered with regard to writing. But let’s take a step back for a moment and reflect on habit. Do you ever do something after not doing it for a long time and think: Wow, that thing is great! Why don’t I do that more often?? And yet this is the thing you were doing every day for months until you grew tired of it and stopped, thinking why do I bother? Habit, as a word, has a negative connotation. It’s always, Oh, that’s a bad habit. She picked up a bad habit. I’ve got to stop this bad habit. No one talks about good habits. It’s never, Oh, I recently picked up this good habit and it’s really helping me out. We need more talk about the value of good habits.

When it comes to writing, a moldy old adage dictates that one should write every day, no matter what the subject or form. This is considered a good writing habit. Just sit there and write and write and write for X amount of time each day and it will be fine. Yet many writers do not write every day. Some don’t write for months, until one day they fly into a manic state and write nonstop. It’s all about which practice works for you. But for those writers in this latter camp, those dry periods can run one ragged. Self-doubt creeps in and one wonders if the words will ever come again. Next comes a turning against the words. Hatred for words! Frustration at their failure to capture anything but a rapid-fade vapor trail of emotion and sensation; anger at their crude rigidity in the face of life’s constant flux.

Which returns us to Travesty. Because it seems to me that this strange little novel might be what a writer writes out of desperation when faced with one of these dreaded dry periods. The Leiris quote is the clue here, for an epigraph hints at the meaning of what is to come. The entirety of Travesty consists of one side of a conversation between the driver and one of the two passengers in a car speeding through the night in rural France toward a planned murder-suicide. Mostly it is a monologue by the driver, though the passenger does interject from time to time, which the reader discerns from the driver’s reactions. There is an absent woman who could be construed as a Muse for these two men; she is not dead, yet her distance from the story renders her near-dead. Even for Hawkes the scenario playing out in this novel is bleak, if not nihilistic. At a surface level, it reads as a piece composed on the brink of the void, a stream of dispassionate vitriol spit over the edge from dry, cracked lips.

It’s worth noting at this point that the second epigraph to the book is from Camus’ The Fall (a book which I have not read). Other reviewers have commented that Travesty reads as either homage to or parody of Camus. And in fact, in a 1976 interview¹ with Paul Emmett and Richard Vine, Hawkes mentions that he’d read The Fall a few months before several incidents that had partly inspired the book. While he evades admission that Travesty is indeed a “travesty” of The Fall, he does say he thinks “The Fall is in some way related to Travesty.” Of course, Camus also died in a car accident, which yields yet another Camus parallel to the book.

Returning to the void, though…in the final line of the conversation, while discussing Travesty, Hawkes says, “The ultimate power of the imagination is to create anything and everything—out of nothing…” Elsewhere in the interview, Hawkes is adamant that none of his fictional work is autobiographical (though he admits stray bits make their way into a text on occasion), and so the Leiris epigraph again rises up (“the poetic structure […] can be based only on what one does not have”). We cannot know if Hawkes was in a desperate dry period when he conceived the idea for Travesty. But it’s obvious that the text is at least in part concerned with this “ultimate power of the imagination.” For the narrator carefully constructs his murderous plan and describes it in calm, precise detail, just as Hawkes crafted the story and everything within it. And they are both empowered by their creations.

Maybe the “nothing” Hawkes refers to is equal to the void, or at least an alternate way of thinking about the void. Rather than a yawning abyss that swallows words (or prevents their creation) it should be thought of as a source for them. In this, the act of writing draws closer to Leiris’ idea of “situating” rather than “filling” the void. Situating the location of a void implies we have some control over it or at least knowledge of it, while filling a void seems an impossible task. If we know where the void is in relation to the “lucid part of ourselves,” it’s easier to manage our exposure to it, and even to draw upon it as a stimulus for creation.

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 ¹Emmett, Paul, and Richard Vine. “A Conversation with John Hawkes.” Chicago Review 28.2 (Fall 1976): 163-171. Accessed through JSTOR, 9 Jul. 2014.

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